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“Say What?”–Is It Dialogue-Worthy?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Last week, we talked a little about balancing narrative with dialogue, and this continues along in that vein.

In Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Allison Amend poses the question: “How do you know if a moment should be translated into dialogue or not?”

Last week, I started to answer this when I said, “Don’t write the small stuff.” In “Dialogue: The Lifeblood of the Mystery Story” (The Writer, October 2008, pp. 30–33), William G. Tapply puts it this way: “Don’t be afraid to summarize any hunk of dialogue that you think readers may be tempted to skip.”

This is one area in which having critique partners can be very helpful—because they’ll let you know whether something is dialogue-worthy or not. But if you don’t have that outlet, or if you want to try to “get it right” before sending it to your critique partners, here are some guidelines to apply to your scenes to try to figure out if something needs to be summarized or if it needs to be shown through dialogue:

1. Dialogue draws attention to itself. Going back to what I said about the psychological effect of a page full of narrative and a page broken up with lots of white-space due to dialogue, as readers, our eye is more naturally drawn to the passage of dialogue because subconsciously, we’ve been conditioned to think that means we are going to get more important information/story movement from the dialogue than we are from the narrative. So is your scene important enough that you need to draw attention to it?

2. “Make sure you are dialoguing moments of real significance, be it character development, plot advancement, or a moment of extreme drama” (Amend, 128). A six page passage of two characters on the phone discussing carpool arrangements or details of a work project, while they may give a little insight into how your POV character’s mind works, are most likely not going to be conversations that advance the plot or increase the conflict of the story, especially if this is then followed by a six-page scene in which the character has another conversation with someone else and reveals a deep-dark secret, learns a secret, or something radically changes in their relationship—because both scenes are shown in dialogue, it’s the first scene (the mundane, everyday discussion) that is going to be more impactful to the reader. “The wise writer would relate only what was necessary about the carpool, perhaps not even using dialogue, then save the dialogue for the good part” (Amend, 128).

3. Dialogue shows, summary tells. “If a moment is of real significance, the reader likes to be there, sitting front and center, watching and hearing” (Amend, 129). Dialogue is immediate and therefore draws the reader even further into what’s happening in your story.

4. Much of the time, dialogue is about confrontation. This doesn’t mean that every time we have dialogue it has to be an argument between two characters. The confrontation can be something going on in the POV character’s head. In Growing the Novel, Stein wrote: “What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant. . . . Characters reveal themselves best in dialogue when they lose their cool and start blurting things out.” (106–107). Confrontation builds—emotions along with the stakes increase as the confrontation continues. Again, this doesn’t have to be an argument. Think about the verbal sparring matches in movies like When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail. While, yes, many of those are actual “fights,” even in the calmer moments, the romantic moments, the dialogue is still charged with emotion and confrontation.

5. Dialogue needs to give the reader an increased understanding of the story. Like every other aspect of the story, dialogue needs to be revelatory and honed in on the goals, motivations, and conflicts of the characters involved and the direction of the plot.

So is your scene dialogue worthy? How do you choose what you convey in dialogue and what you summarize?

  1. Monday, October 13, 2008 11:02 am

    I don’t know whether it’s because of this series but as I was revising parts of my wip, I found myself converting a lot of narrative to dialogue.


  2. Monday, October 13, 2008 12:38 pm


    I have the opposite need when I revise–to find those spots where the dialogue isn’t moving the story forward enough to warrant the word count such showing demands. In most cases, I’ll turn such spots into narrative, and only include the bits of dialogue that _d0_ move the story forward, or are absolutely necessary. That way, what’s impacting doesn’t get lost in a longer conversation.


  3. Monday, October 13, 2008 1:21 pm

    I’ve converted a little bit of narrative to dialogue in editing my current WIP, especially in places where the internal monologue ran on a little long, and a conversation could show those things at the same time.

    On the other hand, I’ve started trimming off the end of telephone conversations (if they’re just the usual “Bye.” “Bye.” fare).

    I’m reading a romantic suspense story now that’s really good, but the author has a tendency to sometimes summarize conversations that have to do with the suspense plot rather than showing the victims’ encounters with the villain. To me, it seems like those conversations would be important.


  4. Jess permalink
    Monday, October 13, 2008 2:14 pm

    Lori, I think I do the same thing. I think sometimes you just need to write down what they said even if it will be deleted later. I think I should know what’s going on, even if the reader can skip it.
    “The Dialogue is charged with emotion and confrontation.” Words to live by.


  5. Monday, October 13, 2008 2:58 pm

    I think I’m more like Lori–I need to see where I can shorten my dialogue or turn some of it into narrative. I’m looking forward to getting my crit back from Kaye this week that I won last month so I can see what she thinks about my dialogue! I do think that certain types of literature like chic lit and gentle women’s fiction (which is how I categorize my latest WIP) tend to be more chatty. Any thoughts on that? ps. big congrats to kaye on her weight loss and her courage in putting her goals out there for all to see. I believe you can do it, girl!


  6. Wednesday, October 15, 2008 9:36 am

    Oh, man, this is tough. I suspect I do too much in dialogue. I went on a show don’t tell frenzy, and now I tend to do most everything within dialogue scenes. Very little is left to summarize, at least not anything that requires more than a short paragraph worth, and that is usually tucked into the dialogue scenes.

    I suspect certain genres require more summary than others, and since so far I’ve only written short contemporary romance, they tend not to have a whole lot of summary in them (short snippets here and there only). Whereas Women’s Lit which spans years of a character would certainly need to utilize summary more freely, I think. Does that make sense? Or am I too dialogue crazy?


  7. Monday, November 5, 2012 1:59 pm

    Great tips, Kaye! I think great dialogue can really help a book sparkle.


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